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'We still have some way to go': MPs emphasise individual responsibility in maintaining public hygiene standards

MPs spoke during the debate in Parliament on the Environmental Public Health Amendment Bill, which seeks to implement mandatory sanitation standards in higher-risk premises.

'We still have some way to go': MPs emphasise individual responsibility in maintaining public hygiene standards

File photo of a hawker centre at Ang Mo Kio Central. (Photo: Rachel Phua)

SINGAPORE: Baseline environmental sanitation standards will be mandated in premises such as pre-schools, eldercare facilities and hawker centres from mid-2021, following the passing of the Environmental Public Health Amendment Bill on Monday (Oct 5). 

Speaking during the second reading of the Bill, Minister for Sustainability and the Environment Grace Fu said: “We are overly reliant on efficient cleaning services. Public toilets in coffee shops and hawker centres are an area of concern and the cleanliness of bin centres and waste disposal areas need to be improved.”

Citing a survey by the Singapore Management University, Ms Fu noted that one in five respondents thought it was acceptable to leave rubbish around if there was already litter in the area, and one in three believed that it is the cleaners’ responsibility to return trays. 

“Clearly, we still have some way to go to inculcate a strong sense of social responsibility in Singaporeans to do their part to keep public spaces clean,” she added. 

The mandatory cleaning standards were first introduced in Parliament in March, during the Committee of Supply debates. 

READ: Mandatory cleaning standards to be introduced, starting with childcare centres, schools and hawker centres

The implementation of the mandatory cleaning standards will start with premises with high footfall, immuno-vulnerable occupants or places with a history of outbreaks such as pre-schools, schools, youth and eldercare facilities, as well as hawker centres and coffee shops, said Ms Fu. 

The standards will cover daily cleaning frequencies for high-touch surfaces such as toilets and lift buttons, and areas that are often neglected like bin centres, she noted. 

Areas that are not easily accessible and not covered by routine cleaning with have a pest management plan, and a cleaning and disinfection protocol, Ms Fu said. The standards will also specify desired cleanliness indicators to be achieved, and the tools and training needed for workers to carry out the cleaning effectively. 

Managers of high-risk premises will also have greater responsibility in ensuring that the environmental sanitation standards are met, she noted. With the support of trained environmental control coordinators (ECC) and environmental control officers (ECO), the managers will need to implement the relevant programmes developed for these premises. 

The Government expects to train 3,800 ECCs from the first quarter of 2021, said Ms Fu, and a two-tiered framework will be introduced to produce “competent” ECCs and ECOs. 

“In general, premises such as a pre-school or coffeeshop will require an ECC while more complex or multi-tenanted premises will require an ECO, with a higher level of competency to coordinate efforts amongst different tenants within the premises,” she said. 

“This will provide a career progression pathway for ECCs to become ECOs, as they gain experience and upgrade their skills to take on more responsibilities.” 

The National Environment Agency (NEA) said in a separate press release on Monday that it is “providing sufficient lead-time” for the various sectors to get ready for the new requirements before mid-2021, as the environmental sanitation regime impacts various sectors and a large number of premises. 

“An Environmental Sanitation Technical Committee was formed in August last year, comprising experts from the academia, industry, medical field and government agencies to develop a set of baseline cleaning guidelines for routine cleaning and disinfection of non-healthcare premises,” said the agency. 

“As different premises have different needs and requirements, since March this year, NEA has been working with various sectoral leads to translate the baseline cleaning guidelines into sectoral-level standards which are calibrated to each sector’s operational needs and constraints.”

The environment agency will guide the managers and the ECCs and ECOs in the initial phase of implementation as they develop and implement the programmes for their respective premises, it said. 

“NEA will highlight to the key personnel the improvements that need to be made, to ensure that the premises adhere to the baseline environmental sanitation standards and cleaning frequencies,” said the agency in the press release. 

The ministry will also proactively regulate higher-risk aquatic facilities and aerosol generating systems, to manage risks from potential waterborne diseases outbreaks, added Ms Fu in Parliament. 

Aquatic facilities include spa pools and water playgrounds, and aerosol-generating systems include cooling towers and decorative water fountains. 

All swimming pools that are accessible by the public are already licensed by the NEA. Under the new amendments to the Act, aquatic facilities will also need to be licensed to similarly meet the chemical and bacteriological regulatory limits for water quality, said the agency in the press release.

GRADING SYSTEM FOR TOILETS

In response to the Bill, Members of Parliament (MPs) Louis Ng and Cheryl Chan suggested a grading system for toilets, similar to the Singapore Food Agency’s (SFA) Food Hygiene Recognition Scheme.

Under the Food Hygiene Recognition Scheme, food establishments are given a grade based on the hygiene, which they have to prominently display.

“While public toilets are already required to be cleaned at regular intervals, having an industry standard metric of assessment on the desired level of cleanliness could better align everyone and better achieve the aim of improving public health and hygiene,” said Ms Chan, a member of the Government Parliamentary Committee (GPC) for Sustainability and the Environment.

The East Coast GRC MP added that pegging the grading of public toilets to the premise manager’s ability in running the entire premise would “put some responsibility” on the operators in keeping up hygiene standards in public toilets.

Going a step further, the Government could consider linking the grading system to licensing durations and fees for coffee shops and hawker centres, said Nee Soon GRC’s Mr Ng, who is chairperson of the GPC for Sustainability and the Environment

He suggested that coffee shops and hawker centres that attain and maintain a minimum cleanliness grade could have “slightly longer” licence terms, or lower licence fees.

“This provides incentives for premises that have done well, to keep up the good work, and for premises that have not done so well, to raise their standards,” he said.

Ms Fu said that while the ministry’s primary focus is to support premises in “achieving a set of baseline environmental sanitation standards”, SFA will introduce a new licensing and recognition framework for food establishments.

This framework will require them to have good track records for food safety and cleanliness. “Major lapses” in toilet cleanliness could affect their licence duration, meaning they could have to go through licence audits more frequently, she said.

MORE TRAINING FOR THE CLEANING INDUSTRY

Several MPs urged for better training and career support for cleaners.

With limited manpower, Chua Chu Kang MP Don Wee noted the need to help cleaners become “more efficient and productive”.

He pointed to the “useful” half-day cleaners’ training programme by NEA and the Restroom Association, seeking the ministry’s assurance that it will become a permanent training programme with refresher and upgrading courses.

The establishment of the ECCs and ECOs can be “a step towards” elevating essential workers and creating pathways for career development in environmental health, said Ang Mo Kio GRC MP Nadia Ahmad Samdin, adding that she hoped businesses would look inwards for talent to be nurtured. 

“I am unsure whether these roles, if fulfilled by part-time external workers, will have an actual effect on improving cleanliness standards,” she said. 

READ: Cleaners to undergo compulsory workplace safety training from 2022

READ: PAP MPs call for faster roll-out of progressive wage model, higher workfare payouts for essential workers

The ministry could consider reducing training fees for businesses which send existing Singaporean employees to be upgraded and certified, she added. 

Tampines MP Desmond Choo, who is also assistant secretary-general of NTUC, said that workers must be “paid fairly” to attract more to join the industry.

Businesses should adopt outcome-based procurement practices, with the Government giving recognition to companies which improve productivity by adopting technology. 

Businesses and government agencies should award cleaning contracts to progressive employers who upskill and reward their workers, and ECC and ECO jobs should be seen as the pinnacle of the Progressive Wage Model for cleaners, he added.

Sengkang GRC MP He Ting Ru, who is from the Workers' Party (WP), said that the stigma associated with cleaning jobs as “unskilled” and “unimportant” could “lead to under-investment in the industry”.

“This prevents the implementation of new technologies and digitalisation initiatives that would otherwise raise productivity and make such jobs less physically demanding on our older workers, but also removing some of the stigma associated with being a cleaner,” she said.

In response, Ms Fu said that the Government is upskilling workers in the cleaning industry.

This includes a new Place-and-Train Programme for cleaning specialists for disinfection services in August, and Continuing Education and Training courses on environmental infection control - with up to 90 per cent subsidy - for local cleaners and jobseekers.

All cleaning businesses have to offer wages under the Progressive Wage Model, and enhancements to the model have helped improve real median monthly gross wages of full-time residents cleaners, she added.

READ: Government, trade organisations call on firms to pay cleaners fairly amid COVID-19 outbreak

PERSONAL RESPONSIBILITY AND CIVIC MINDEDNESS

Most MPs who spoke on the Bill stressed that public hygiene and health is still a matter of personal responsibility, and urged the Government to also introduce ways to cultivate civic mindedness. 

WP’s Ms He said: “Are we truly a nation where individuals take responsibility to ensure that our environment is clean and hygienic, or do we instead see it as someone else's problem? Do we make messes in our living environments and expect cleaners to do their jobs, and clean up after us?” 

Singapore must start developing “the type of social consciousness” for citizens to adopt a clean lifestyle, she added. 

“We could do so by having another look at our clean and green campaigns over the years to figure out what has been effective in the past. Have these campaigns overly emphasised fines, penalties and shaming for specific behaviours, with less regard to the reasons behind our actions, rather than address wider issues relating to shifts in awareness that everyone has a role to play in keeping our shared spaces clean?” 

Youth voices would be “extremely important”, and the young should be fully involved from the start, to drive home the message that Singapore’s reliance on cheap and elderly labour to clean up after the public “has to go”, said Ms He. 

Noting that the COVID-19 pandemic has illustrated Singapore’s dependency on foreign labour to keep the country clean, WP’s Raeesah Khan, also a Sengkang GRC MP, said: “Is this model sustainable? What happens if there's another situation that arises, where we don't have access to them. 

“We need to ensure that Singaporeans are empowered with a sense of ownership and civic mindedness towards our country. I worry that with more guidelines and thus potentially the hiring of more cleaners, we start relinquishing our responsibility and caring for the environment and the people we share our surroundings with.”

Mr Ng said the committee believes public hygiene is “everyone’s personal responsibility”.

“While this Bill will help, we urge all Singaporeans to move away from the mindset that cleaners will be there to clean up after us. We should be a ‘clean’ Singapore”, not a ‘cleaned’ Singapore,” the Nee Soon GRC MP added. 

Responding to the concerns, Ms Fu noted that a slew of issues that were raised by the MPs in relation to the Bill, including pest control, tray returning, smoking and littering are all related to environmental public health. 

“These interrelated issues show that public health is multifaceted and the solution must also be multifactorial. This is why all users must play their part if we are to truly move the needle on public hygiene,” she added. 

“While the manager can keep his place clean and safe, individuals must take responsibility to maintain good personal hygiene. This is not just about safeguarding public health, but also about building a more gracious society.” 

Source: CNA/hw(ta)

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